Marshall: Hey Big Country, I know you have electricity, but do you guys have gas down South?
Me: (Proudly) Sure, we do.
Marshall: I’ll bet you do, with all of those beans you eat.
Boy, was I red faced, but when you’re the rawboned, not-terribly-bright country bumpkin visiting your city relations Up North every summer, those are the kinds of putdowns you experience, indeed, the kind you get used to.
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One day while summering at the family compound in Washington and sitting on the stoop with a bunch of other 12-year-old boys from the neighborhood, there were no flies to pull the wings off of or stray cats to torment. That must be why they started in on me over the fact that Rockingham didn’t have any of the large department stores that Washington had.
It may be the strangest argument in which adolescents have ever engaged, but they taunted me because we had no Hecht’s, no Woodward & Lothrop, no Garfinckel’s, among others.
I was impressed, because when I returned home at the end of the summer, I’d regale my country compadres with tales of massive stores that had – get this – moving stairs! (I wish I were making this up.)
What kind of department stores did we have in Rocking Chair? they asked.
They found that uproarious, inquiring if the store sold only belts – har har – or if it was a general store as seen on the TV show “Hee Haw,” which had debuted that year.
Nearly five decades later, none of those stores in which my pals took such pride even exist. Hecht’s is just a memory, as are Garfinckel’s and Woodie’s – the name sophisticated cityfolk used for Woodward & Lothrop. They can be found only on that dusty, discontinued clearance rack in the backs of our memories. Macy’s purchased and converted some Hecht’s, but recently announced it was closing 68 more stores. Among those falling under the ax is the Macy’s at Northgate Mall in Durham.
My buddy and first editor here at the N&O, George Lawrence, had similar childhood experiences to me. We both used to get teased for being from down South and for his accent.
Belk, though, is still sailing along. Naw, it isn’t the distinctly Southern institution it was a few years ago, having been purchased 13 months ago by a New York-based private equity firm, but its roots are still in the South. Even though I own no stock in it and spend way too much money there – I’m a sucker for a Red Dot Special – I felt inexplicable yet genuine regret when the family sold it and it was no longer a North Carolina institution.
How much of an institution was it?
The Rockingham Belk moved from downtown to the shopping center 50 years ago, but its former home – despite numerous incarnations since then – is still referred to as “the old Belk building.”
It wasn’t just the imminent shuttering of the Macy’s at Durham’s Northgate Mall that brought to mind the provincial putdowns of those long-ago summers.
What else did was the death of my buddy and first editor here at the N&O, George Lawrence. Lawrence, 58, died last week, and his childhood experiences were similar to mine. Just as I was raised in Rockingham and spent summers in D.C., he was raised in Goldsboro and spent summers in Washington, as well. He, too, he told me, used to get teased for being from down South and for his accent.
After I was interviewed for the job here, then-publisher Frank Daniels and managing editor Anders Gyllenhaal said that if Lawrence – the Durham bureau editor – and I got along, the job was mine. He and I had dinner at Parizade’s, where we learned of our similar raisings. After the waiter gave us the fisheye for the 10th time trying to get us out of there after everybody else had gone, there was no doubt that we got along.
Besides being a newshound, Lawrence had one feature that no one who knew him will ever forget – an Eastern North Carolina drawl so pronounced you could almost smell the vinegar they use in their pork barbecue. That accent saved me $200 one day.
While driving through Vass, I stopped at an antique shop and saw a beautiful oak wardrobe. Despite my efforts – and for reasons known only to him but suspected by me – the owner would not drop the price a penny. I told George to call and to really crank up the drawl. He did, and told the owner he’d been in there the previous day and had seen an oak wardrobe. How much was it? he asked.
The price immediately dropped $100 from what it had been, so George told him, “I’m going to send one of my boys down there to pick it up this week.”
Deal. When I arrived at the antique store, I told the owner that “Mistuh George” had sent me to pick up his wardrobe. I swear on a stack of Tyrone Davis and Z.Z. Hill albums, the owner asked, “How much did I tell him it was?”
Ka-ching. The price dropped another hundred dollars.
Lawrence used to show me letters that angry readers would write to him, and his responses. Two of them were unforgettable. One writer asked why the newspaper allowed me to wear that ridiculous derby that made me, she said, look like Andy Brown’s illegitimate son on Amos & Andy.
Ma’am, George told her, that’s how he actually dresses.
Another writer asked if I were as big an #$@%^&* in real life as I am in the newspaper.
Yes, George wrote back in response.